Feminism and Musical Theatre
Throughout history, there has always been an issue with humankind. We have a problem with other cultures, beliefs, sexes, ages, and even classes. We do not like people who are different from us. Theatre has always been one step ahead of the game of exposing this issue. You can find a social justice reference in almost every musical. Grease, Legally Blonde, and Les Misérables are just a few examples of musicals that I am going to talk about that have feminist motives.
For those who don’t know the storyline of Grease, it is basically a musical about exposing the negative social issues of the late 1950’s. A boy meets a good girl on summer vacation and they fall in love. When they finally see each other again, Danny is completely different from what Sandy had remembered. He was a bad boy with grease stains, a leather jacket, and slicked back hair instead of a sweet and caring boy who saved her life from drowning over the summer. At the end of the movie, Sandy actually changes her ways and becomes a “bad” girl with skin-tight leather pants, red lipstick, and heels that Danny cannot refuse and they ride off together into the sunset.
Although Grease is considered one of the most well-known and loved musicals of all time it is still widely underrated. Grease addresses many social justice issues within its plot, but most are not even noticed due to the subtlety. Grease takes place in 1959 in Los Angeles, California at a high school called “Rydell High”. In 1959 many teenagers were struggling with who they are as a person and what persona they wanted versus what their conservative parents wanted. Many teenagers at the time were “good” and followed their parent’s wishes like Sandy. They wore modest poodle skirts, natural hair, stayed away from sex, smoking, drugs, alcohol, you name it. They tried to be the “perfect” child even if it wasn’t who they really were on the inside. While on the other hand, we have “The Pink Ladies” who are the badass girls of Rydell High who don’t listen to anybody about how they should behave and act other than themselves. Rizzo, the leader, is portrayed as the school slut. She gives off a “don’t mess with me” vibe and does whatever she wants to do. Frenchie is the failure of the group. She dyes her hair unnatural colors and wants to drop out of high school to pursue her dream of going to beauty school. Then we have Marty, the player of the Pink Ladies. She is the girl who craves attention and will get it by any means necessary. She honeypots long distances guys into dating her to get free stuff and attention. The last member of the Pink Ladies is Jan. She is referred to as the fat girl who is always eating but has always been cast as a skinny girl. Now what is interesting is that throughout the musical we get subtle hints that Sandy is not actually as good as she seems and that her “good” girl persona is fake. In the musical, there is a song called “Sandra Dee”. The song’s entire purpose is to make fun of Sandy, calling her “lousy with virginity” and saying she is “no object of lust” comparing her to the teen poster girl Sandra Dee who was everything the adults wanted teens to be and what teenagers at the time started to reject. Many people at the time made fun of Sandra Dee for being “fake” in her life, acting style, and even on-screen emotions (Jusino, 1). Many female teenagers tried to model after her acting persona of a “good girl” but paid little attention to her real personality. So when Sandy says “ goodbye to Sandra Dee” she really means goodbye to her fake persona and is welcoming her true self. This is the point in the musical where she starts to be more open to everything, instead of saying no. So at the end of the musical when Sandy “changes” for Danny, she didn’t actually want to change just because she wanted the guy; I think that she really is just embracing her true self and disregarding the shame she will face from her family and society. To me, this musical is showing that it’s okay to break the “role barriers” of society, and is saying that it’s okay for females to be “bad” and not just males. Grease is a critique of 1950’s sexism and not promoting it, like many belief. The sexist lines and comments like “did she put up a fight”, “the chicks will cream”, and “sloppy seconds” are necessary in order to depict the struggle that these teens were going through. (Jusino, 1)
“You must always have faith in yourself” is the theme of this musical. At first glance, this theme is a little broad (and kind of hard to apply to just feminism) but when you look at it in depth, this play has feminism written all over it. So, what is Legally Blonde? It’s a musical about a blonde sorority girl who falls in love with a preppy rich dude who is a legacy at Harvard Law School. At the beginning of the musical Elle (the blonde sorority girl) thinks that Warner (the preppy dude) is going to propose to her over dinner. She then goes out and buys a fabulous dress, and her whole sorority sings a song about how amazing these two are going to be together called “Oh My God You Guys”. At dinner Warner actually breaks up with Elle because he needs someone who is “less of a Marilyn more of a Jackie” and “somebody classy and not too tacky”, implying that Elle is a stupid blonde sorority girl who isn’t smart or classy enough to keep a guy like him. After the breakup, Elle is devastated, but then quickly gets the brilliant idea that she is going to win Warner back by going to Harvard Law School. She applies and gets in, obviously, and even gets into the same classes as Warner, only to find out he that is engaged to a new girl who is a complete pain named Vivian. Throughout the movie Elle tries to fit into the social groups at Harvard and pass her classes to impress Warner, but somewhere along the way she actually starts to get interested in law, and actually gets into the elite student law team that her professor forms to help him win his murder case. She becomes their clients’ “go to” gal, and she even gets the client to give her an alibi when no ones else could. Her professor calls Elle into his office to “congratulate” her but in reality, he just pulled her away so he could try and hit on her. Elle begins to question if she was put on this team because she was smart or if it was all a hoax for the professor to get into her pants. She then goes to get her nails done as she contemplates leaving Harvard Law when her other female professor comes up to her, and tells her that she is smart enough to be at Harvard and her looks had nothing to do with her grades in her class. So Elle storms into the courtroom of the murder trial that her team is trying to solve and gets the client to fire her professor and hire her instead. Elle wins the case and her client gets set free. She also graduates as valedictorian, and Vivian ends up dumping Warner as well as becomes best friends with Elle. Elle also ends up with her professor’s Teaching Assistant and they live happily ever after.
Legally Blonde has so many feminist points to it that it is hard to know where to begin. Let’s start at the beginning of the musical. When Elle thinks that Warner is going to propose her she goes out to buy a new dress. While she is shopping a sales lady walks up to her and tries to take advantage of Elle by showing her a dress that was from last season, and selling it to her at this season’s price. This is the first scene where we realize Elle isn’t a stupid blonde. She explains to the lady that she saw the same exact dress in last season’s Vogue magazine and that if she was “trying to sell it to me for full price, you picked the wrong girl.” Elle shakes the encounter off and ends up buying a perfect dress. After Warner broke up with her at dinner, Elle refused to let him give her a ride home. I think this really shows her character, as it shows that she cannot be disregarded, that she can take care of herself, and that she doesn’t need a man in her life. This is the first sign of independence we see from Elle. She later gives in to the car ride, but that is to save her Jimmy Choo shoes from being ruined. Once she has her mind set on going to Harvard Law she began to take the LSAT and get her GPA up. At first, nobody believes that she could actually get into an Ivy league school and that she should think of a backup, but Elle replies: “I don’t need backups, I’m going to Harvard” (Bennett). She puts in the hard work and perseverance, scores a 179 on her LSAT, and makes a super creative admissions video to ensure her acceptance. After she gets into Harvard and meets Vivian, she realizes that she doesn’t need a man in her life after all and that she will “never be good enough” for Warner, even though she clearly has the brains and class that he was referring to before. After she gets into her professor’s elite student legal team, she is sexually assaulted by her professor. Not only does she immediately reject him and walk away, but she rallies, gets him fired, and steals his murder case. After she wins the case, Warner apologizes to her and asks her to forgive him and give him a second chance. She replies with “I need a boyfriend who is not such a complete bonehead”. Throughout the musical, she also gets mocked for her feminine traits as if it’s a bad thing, but she perseveres in spite of this. She also never mocks anyone else for lacking feminine traits. So the theme of “you must always believe in yourself” really applies to feminism here. First Elle isn’t “smart” or “classy” enough for a guy, then no one thinks she can’t get into law school because she is a blonde sorority girl. She is also looked down upon for embracing the fact that she is a female, and is sexually assaulted because of it. All because of embracing her sexuality. Legally Blonde teaches girls that it is okay to embrace being feminine and being smart, classy, and independent all at the same time. Just because you are born with certain body parts or a hair color doesn’t imply that you are stupid, or are only useful for sexual reasons (Bennett).
My last example of a musical with feminist undertones is Les Misérables. Les Misérables takes place in Paris, France in 1978 near the storm of Bastille. During this time frame, it was really hard for women to get work. They were seen as undesirables in the workplace. This was also a time where if you didn’t have a job or a husband to support you, you would starve and die. The government of France gave nothing to the poor like they do here in America. In this musical, there is a scene where a female worker named Fantine is fired and thrown into the street to starve because the owner found that out she has a child and no husband. In that day and age having a love child was something to be cast out over. Notice that the father gets out of this mess with nothing to show for it. He gets her pregnant, leaves, and is free to do what he wants for the rest of his life with no repercussions. Fantine has to give birth to the baby, is then forced to let someone else take care of it, and still has to support the kid. lineally, Fantine gets fired because the guy left her and is forced to sell her hair, teeth, and body in order to support her child. She ends up dying because she gets addicted to pain medication and becomes sick. Why did the guy get off with no repercussions and Fantine reap the biggest price of them all? Because she is a girl. Les Misérables is a great musical showing the struggles of the poor, but also the struggles of women at this time. This musical really puts things into perspective for me regarding feminism and the way we as women have been treated (Wilson, 2012).
To this day sexism is still a really big problem in our society. We are slut-shamed, fat shamed, and still struggle to make as much money for the same work as a man does. Theatre has always been one step ahead of the game on these issues and producing productions years before the social justice issues become widely acknowledged. Grease, Legally Blonde, and Les Misérables all have two things in common: a strong female lead, and a script to change the world’s perspective on feminism. Theatre will always be relevant to our society, and therefore will always be a way for humankind to come together once and for all.
Jusino, Teresa. “Four Reasons Why Grease Is a Feminist Musical.” The Mary Sue Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.
History.com Staff. “The Fight for Women’s Suffrage.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.
Bennett, Alanna. “‘Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods Was A Feminist Icon, So Let’s Throw Some Snaps Her Way.” ‘Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods Was A Feminist Icon, So Let’s Throw Some Snaps Her Way. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.
Wilson, Natalie. “Some Musicals Are More Feminist Than Others – Ms. Magazine Blog.” Ms Magazine Blog. N.p., 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.